John Blackwell

The Rev John Blackwell, (Alun, 1797 – 1840), curate of Holywell and Rector of Manordeifi (Pembrokeshire), wrote an essay for the Gwent and Dyfed Royal Eisteddfod, held at Cardiff in 1834 ‘On the Advantages Resulting from the Preservation of the Welsh Language and the National Costumes of Wales.’ Augusta Hall (Lady Llanover) won the prize and there was one other entry by her God-mother Lady Greenly. Blackwell’s essay was sent in too late for adjudication.  However, it contains much more on Welsh costume than Augusta Hall’s.

Blackwell published his essay anonymously under the title ‘Gwisgiad y Cymru’ (The Welsh costume) in Welsh in the magazine which he edited ‘Cylchgrawn y Gymdeithas er Taenu Gwybodaeth Fuddiol [Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge] (Llanymddyfri, 1834), pp. 274-276. It was thus published nearly 2 years before Lady Llanover’s essay.

His essay was published in English, as a translation from the Welsh in Beauties of Alun; being the Literary Remains, in Welsh and English, of the late The Rev John Blackwell, B.A., (Ruthin and London, 1851), edited by G. Edwards (Gutyn Padarn), pp. 253-266 which states thatThis essay was intended for the Cardiff Eisteddfod, [1834] but sent in too late for the adjudication.’

The English translation was also published in The Cambrian Journal, (Cambrian Institute, Tenby, 1861), pp. 26-38, in which it was prefaced by the following: ‘We reprint the following essay by the late eminent Bard and Scholar, Blackwell ; especially as it furnishes valuable information on a subject that is engaging a good deal of the public attention just now, that is, the National Costume of the Welsh.’ Its publication in 1861 may have been a response to questions about Welsh costume published in the Cambrian Journal for 1858, pp. 366-367.

Extracts from the Essay

[The Essay began with a reference to Samuel Meyrick’s chapter on ancient and modern Welsh costume (Meyrick, S. R., The History and Antiquities of the County of Cardiganshire, 1808, pp. cci-ccii; 2nd edition, 1907, p. 91, see below.) Blackwell had published a Welsh translation of Meyrick’s chapter in an earlier number of his magazine (Cylchgrawn y Gymdeithas er Taenu Gwybodaeth Fuddiol, (1934), pp. 174-176).]

‘This is almost all we can gather of the Welsh costume in the middle ages … Still some peculiarities remain among us even now, especially in Gwent and Dyfed, which appear native and old. The male dress differs less from the English, generally, than the female. The difference in the former is more in the material of the dress, than in the form. The Welsh peasantry delight in having a whole suit of blue, home-spun, half-fulled cloth, – with blue stockings, or perchance of the native colour of a black sheep. … The Radnorshire cloth is of the same material, but there the sable grey is preferred. [This is probably derived from Meyrick]. In Meirion, the surcyn (jerkin) is most frequently seen; and even there, now, it is but seldom worn on Sunday. At work it is found convenient, on account of its want of skirts.

One of the first things that attracts the notice of a stranger in the Principality is the general custom among the females of wearing hats. In some districts sufficient distinction is not observed between the male and female hat. The women of Anglesey and Dyfed, however, show a superior taste in this matter. In Dyfed, the brim of the female hat is rather broad, and the body of it inclines to a cone as it approaches the crown. In Anglesey and Meirion, smaller hats are worn by the women than the men, and these look extremely well. Although some have observed … that the English bonnets suit the retiring modesty of the sex much better than the open faced hat, we should feel much reluctance in giving up this characteristic part of our national costume; for nothing could be contrived so well calculated to set off the rosy beauties of our hills as this.

The next article in the female dress is the ‘mob cap’. With all our predilection for everything national, we feel a difficulty in speaking well of this. In vain has nature given a neck of symmetry of the fair part of the population, while the broad lappets of the mob cap conceal all, and frequently a part of the face also. Were the lappets narrower, they would look better.

What is called in Dyfed ‘pais a gŵn bach’ a petticoat and bedgown, forms a peculiarity in the Welsh female dress. In Flintshire, and the parts of Wales bordering upon England, these garments are made entirely from a mixture of flax or cotton and wool, called linsey Woolsey. But as we ascend the mountains something warmer is necessary to defend against the cold of winter and the sudden rains of summer. The material here is a thick flannel, nearly as thick as cloth, and striped alternately dark and dark red. In the upper parts of Cardiganshire, and in all the most mountainous districts, the skirts of the gown are made to descend almost to the ankle. In Dyfed, they are cut in an oval form, and very short, so as to appear like a man’s jacket. The skirt of the petticoat is generally hemmed with scarlet tape, which in the vale of the Teifi is called ‘cadys coch’. The sleeves are turned up above the elbow and from the elbow to the wrist loose sleeves of cotton, with a running string at each end, are generally worn. Aprons of linsey Woolsey, or of check, are used, as the gown is open before. Over the shoulders, an oblong piece of flannel is thrown, in Dyfed and other places. On week days, white flannels are generally seen, but on Sunday, all appear in their home-spun shawls, of beautiful and brilliant crimson. These red coverings made the French who landed in Pembrokeshire during the late war think that the immense multitude which they saw lining the cliffs, were all soldiers.

The female mantle is generally made of blue cloth ; and so suddenly do the mountains attract a shower from the passing cloud, that the hottest day a Welshwoman scarcely moves from home without her cloak.

The young women wear on the head only a narrow ribbon to tie the hair, and a cap; but in some parts, immediately after marriage, a handkerchief is added. This is made into a triangle by being doubled, is thrown over the head, folded under the chin, and the long ends tied into a knot at the back of the neck. If the climate does not make such a head-dress indispensable, we would not defend its use, for nothing has so much tendency to produce pain in the head as too much tightness and warmth.

On work days, wooden shoes are worn by the peasantry, in many places, though few are without leathern shoes on the Sunday. The clattering of these on the pavement of our small town, on a market day, would make a stranger think that a troop of horse was approaching. We have often thought that this practice of wearing heavy and unpliable shoes has given to many of our younger people an awkwardness of gait which nature never intended for them. …

There is one more peculiarity in the Welsh mode of dress which must be noticed, – the almost universal use of flannel in cases where the English prefer linen. The shirts of the lower order are generally of flannel; they almost invariably sleep in blankets. In most of the Welsh districts, a pair of sheets is rarely found in a cottage. As the use of linen is much more conducive to cleanliness, the writer of this endeavoured, a short time back, to induce the cottagers of his neighbourhood to use linen for the purposes mentioned above; but all efforts were abortive. After all, perhaps, they are right, as no slight covering would avail to defend them from the effects of their ever changeable weather. The cotton of Manchester however multiplied, would be but a poor defence in one of our mountain storms.

From these very imperfect remarks, it may be seen that one advantage which the Principality derives from the preservation of its national costume consists in the materials being the produce of its own hills. The Welsh mountain farmer can generally find on his own farm almost all he wants for the clothing of his family, and frequently all are manufactured under his own roof.

{The weather compelled our ancestors to wear warm dress ‘which we now call national’ and this is a good reason for preserving it.} Nor should we gain anything by change. Simplicity in dress is frequently proof of, and conducive to, a simplicity in the social and moral habits. The preservation of the old costume destroys that restless hankering after new fashions … {The English have no national dress. The higher ranks follow Paris, and the rest follow them.} This restless anxiety after something new does not disturb the thoughts of our fair mountaineer. She may put on the dress of her great-grandmother and walk out among her friends, without differing in appearance from them. And why should she change it? What national costume is there among any other people that appears so neat, and is so well adapted to the climate, as the Welsh one. …

Nothing cherishes a desire for fine clothes so much as a continual change in the manner of making them; and how often has this pride of dress been a stumbling-block to virtue. Let our peasantry, therefore, preserve their ancient costume, especially as simplicity in dress serves to uphold, in its degree, national simplicity and worth. …’

[In the Cambrian Journal the essay is followed by extracts from Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion, which describe dress worn by the Welsh in the Middle Ages.]

Meyrick’s description of ‘modern’ costumes, 1808

Here my materials [for mediaeval costume] fail, and I must therefore proceed hastily to describe the dress of the modern Welsh, such as is retained by the peasantry, as the superior follow the English fashions.

This dress, as it seems enforced by the climate, I doubt not has been at least two or three centuries in vogue, and probably that of the women much longer.

The men wear a coarse woollen cloth of a sky blue colour for coat, breeches, and waistcoat, with worsted stockings of the same colour; though in Radnorshire the colour is a drab.  Even many of the clergy are so prejudiced in favour of their paternal dress, that they despise a sable habit, and retain the country clothing.

The women’s dress is made of wool and flax, which they call linsey-woolsey; and this they have woven into pretty chequers of blue and white, or red and white stripes on a blue background. Throughout the principality they invariably wear men’s hats, shoes and buckles; mob caps; over which they sometimes tie a handkerchief, the end of which hangs down between the shoulders. In Carmarthenshire they wear an oblong piece of red flannel deeply bordered with black ribband, which they throw across their shoulders, and which since the taking of the French who landed at Fishguard last war, have been termed the Frenchman’s terror. In most other counties the women wear long dark blue cloaks with hoods hanging back, which have a very handsome appearance; some, however, but not many, wear scarlet cloaks.

Meyrick, S. R., The History and Antiquities of the County of Cardiganshire, 1808, pp. cci-ccii; 2nd edition, 1907, p. 91

In W.H. Pyne’s The Costume of Great Britain, (1805) there is a list of publications on Foreign costumes, which includes: The Ancient Costumes of Great Britain, by Dr Meyrick, but I have failed to find a copy of this. In J. R. Planché’s, A History of British Costume. From Ancient Times to the Eighteenth Century, (1834) two works by Meyrick are listed: Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands (London, 1821) and A Critical Enquiry into Ancient Arms and Armour (1824).